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Guru Unmasked

I rarely go to see a movie twice, but after watching Kumaré, I went back to see it again the next day. Directed by Vikram Gandhi, the film is hilarious and profound, playful and edgy. A bright, indie film maker conducts an experiment: putting on the orange robes of a guru, he sets out to see if people might find the same inner peace and nourishment from a made-up religion as they do from a “real one.”

Kurt Vonnegut played with this concept in Cat’s Cradle, as do Trey Parker and Matt Stone in The Book of Mormon, which begins a national tour in August for which tickets have sold out in hours. I suspect one reason that Mormon has struck a nerve is that it reveals, under the ribald comedy, a truth that is the central point of Kumaré: religious practices can be made to look absurd, but they can act as a placebo to make people feel happy and inspired.

Vikram Gandhi as himself

Vikram Gandhi was born in New Jersey to parents from India, who forced him to attend Hindu rituals and pray to gods that included a flying monkey and an elephant with a man’s body. He saw it all as embarrassing claptrap that “somebody made up” long ago. He studied religion at Columbia University, which made him more of a skeptic. But at the very time he was trying to throw off his Hindu heritage, he realized that millions of Americans were embracing it. He started making a documentary about yoga and concluded that the gurus he filmed were largely “making stuff up.” He traveled to India, where he found the swamis “just as phony as those I met in America.”

Vikram grows a beard and long hair, wraps some orange cloth around him and begins walking barefoot and carrying a staff with a giant Om symbol. Then all he has to do, he says, is “imitate my grandmother’s voice”—a sing-song Indian accent.

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